The polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, of St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent (Belgium) was begun ca. the mid-1420s and completed before 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. This altarpiece has been highly praised as an art masterpiece and one of the world’s artistic treasures. Scholars generally agree that Hubert designed the overall structure of the altarpiece, and that Jan painted the panels. It has also been considered that Jan finished panels begun by Hubert. Through centuries after its completion, this altarpiece has been admired for its beauty, its use of light and color, and for its general conception and design. It is a grandiose work, particularly designed to make the most of it when light hits its side and the color tones of the admirable applied oil paint appear intense and warm, with deep reds, blues, bright greens, some almost metallic in nature, a general scheme color that make the scenes light up as if they were bathed in the transparent atmosphere of the regions of Northern Europe. This work represents the moment when a new language and a new sensibility shook the old religious heritage. The medieval theological cycle reached its culmination in the Ghent polyptych. In this altarpiece humanity and nature are both omnipresent, as concrete as they are and display all their wealth of forms: people, rocks, trees, horses and flowers appear free of symbolic meanings. The scenes of the Adoration of the Lamb clearly occur on Earth, an Earth dazzling with beauty, contemplated without nostalgia or remorse for earthly sins. In sum, the Ghent Altarpiece represents a pivotal stage in the evolution of western art; in it the traditional medieval idealization gave way to a realistic representation of environment, nature and human beings. This attention to detail is seen in the treatment of clothes and jewels, people, objects, natural landscapes, churches and cityscapes, as well as vegetation, which were all painted with remarkable detail an almost scientific accuracy. Lighting is also one of the great innovations seen in the polyptych. Its paintings include complex light and shadow effects as well as astonishing detail of reflected light on the surface textures which were achieved thanks to Jan’s developing of new techniques and mastering of handling both oil paint and transparent glazes.
The Ghent altarpiece was commissioned by the wealthy merchant and Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette as part of a larger project for a chapel of Saint Bavo Cathedral. Jodocus was one of the most powerful citizens of Ghent at the time and was one of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good’s most trusted local councilmen. The commissioning of such an unprecedentedly monumental altarpiece was intended primarily to secure a legacy since the Vijds didn’t have any children. Between 1410 and 1420, Jodocus financed the construction of a new chapel off the choir, which took his family name and was used to regularly hold masses in his and his ancestors’ behalf. This chapel was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, whose traditional attribute is the Lamb of God, a symbol of Christ. It was for this particular chapel that Jodocus commissioned Hubert van Eyck to create a large and rich altarpiece. The altarpiece was officially installed and consecrated on 6 May 1432.
When fully opened, the Ghent altarpiece measures 11 ft x 15 ft (3.4 m x 4.6 m) and includes 12 painted panels. When closed it measures 12.3 ft x 8.5 ft (3.75 m x 2.6 m) and includes 8 painted panels. The panels (either when opened or closed) are organized in two horizontal registers, each with two sets of foldable shutters (wings) containing inner and outer panel paintings.
Description of the Polyptych
Closed view. The austere exterior panels were executed with less complexity if compared to the inner panels. They set a simple tone in preparation to what the viewer will experience when the panels are fully opened. The upper panels include lunettes with Prophets and Sibyls looking down on the Annunciation scene in the panels below. These lunette figures represent characters that foresaw the coming of Christ.
The far left lunette shows the prophet Zechariah and the far right lunette shows Micah. The next and much taller inner upper shutters represent the Erythraean Sibyl (on the left) and the Cumaean Sibyl (on the right). Each one of these first panels includes a text inscribed on a floating ribbon and the identities of the portrayed figures are carved on the lower border of each panel. Inside their lunettes, Zechariah and Micah look down on the fulfillment of their prophecies.
The Erythraean Sibyl is shown observing, while the Cumaean Sibyl, wearing a green dress with thick fur sleeves, looks down at Mary in the lower panel, with her hand over her own womb as a sign of empathy with Mary’s destiny as the Mother of God. The Erythrean Sibyl’s dress was inspired in the one Isabella Princess of Portugal wore when Jan painted her portrait in 1428 for the Duke of Burgundy.
The next scenes, beneath the lunettes, are painted in the four panels of the upper register. The style of the room’s furnishings and the town visible through the arched window set these panels in a contemporary 15th century setting. The two outer panels show the Annunciation to Mary, with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and the Virgin Mary on the right. Both are dressed in white robes, and seem to occupy the opposite ends of the same room. Their figures are disproportionately large in comparison to the height of the room they occupy, this follows the iconographic conventions of the International Gothic and late Byzantine art for which the image of holy beings should be represented in a much larger scale than their surroundings.
Gabriel and Mary’s panels are separated by two much narrower panels showing empty interior scenes. The left-hand inner panel has a window that opens onto a detailed view of a street and a city square, while the right-hand inner panel image shows a niche carved in the room wall with a still life representing a domestic lavabo (a hanging towel, a silver pitcher and tray).
The Archangel Gabriel has blond hair and multicolored wings. His right hand is raised and in his left he carries lilies, a flower symbolic of Mary’s virginity. The Archangel’s words to Mary are written alongside him in Latin in gold characters: AVE GRACIA PLENA D(OMI)N(U)S TECU(M) (“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”).
Mary’s response to the Archangel is written in reverse and upside-down, as if for God who is reading from heaven, or for the holy spirit, represented by the dove right on top of Mary’s head. They read: ECCE ANCILLA D(OMI)NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”). To the right of Mary there’s a small window from which the sunlight enters the room and reflects beautifully on a still life inside a niche in the wall.
The lower register shows the donors on the far left and right panels flanked by statues of saints in the inner panels.
The statues were painted in grisaille imitating faux stone. In these lower panels, Jan made a master use of lighting to create the impression of depth, as if the donors and the statues were placed inside real niches. The outer panels show the donors Joost Vijdt (to the left) and his wife Lysbette Borluut (to the right). The inner panels contain the grisaille paintings of Saint John the Baptist (left) and Saint John the Evangelist (right). The donors appear kneeling and gazing into the distance with their hands clasped together in veneration before the saints’ sculptures.
Each saint sculpture stands on a stone plinth inscribed with his name. John the Baptist holds a lamb in his left arm and is turned towards Joost Vijdt. His right hand is raised and his finger extended to point towards the lamb. John the Evangelist holds a chalice, a reference to the early medieval tradition that he had ability with cures: it was believed that he could drink poison from a cup without getting sick.
The donors are painted life size, and in a much larger scale than the saints. Their bright and warmly colored clothes contrast sharply with the grey tones of the saints’ sculptures.
The figures of the Vijdts are considered as realistic portraits of the donors, Jan’s depiction of the old couple is very detailed and un-flattering: see Joost’s watering eyes, wrinkled hands, warts, bald head and stubble streaked with gray. These portraits are generally thought to be among the final panels completed for the altarpiece, and can be dated to 1431 or the early months of 1432.
Open view. The altarpiece was opened only on feast days. When the shutters open, the space doubles and unfolds in a magnificent view. The inner panels are organized along two horizontal registers and contain hundreds of figures. The upper level includes seven monumental panels, each almost six feet high (1.82 mt). The large central panel represents an image of either Christ or God the Almighty flanked by paintings with Mary (left) and John the Baptist (right). These three panels form the Deësis scene (Deësis refers to images of Christ in Majesty enthroned and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist). This Deësis includes over 20 inscriptions referring to the figures. These main three panels are flanked by two pairs of paintings on the folding shutters. The panels closest to Mary and John the Baptist show singing Angels in heaven; the outermost pair of panels show Adam and Eve totally naked. The lower horizontal register shows a panoramic landscape running continuously across five panels and presented as a unified Mise en scène.
The Deësis scene occupying the three central upper panels shows monumental and enthroned figures, each with a halo. According to scholars, the central panel represents either Christ in Majesty dressed in priest’s vestments and wearing a papal crown, God the Father, or the Holy Trinity amalgamated into a single person.
This figure looks directly towards the viewer with his right hand raised in blessing while in the left holds a scepter symbol of power, and appears seated in a throne filled with inscriptions and symbols.
The scepter was exquisitely painted, with marvelously represented rock crystal and shining gold and pearls.
His robe’s hem also include Greek inscriptions decorated with pearls, such inscriptions are taken from the Book of Revelation and read REX REGUM ET DOMINUS DOMINANTIUM (“King of Kings, and Lord of Lords”).
The golden brocade covering the central figure’s throne features pelicans and vine, probable references to the blood spilled during Christ’s Crucifixion: pelicans were at the time believed to spill their own blood to feed their young, the vines allude to sacramental wine, the Eucharistic symbol of Christ’s blood.
A crown is at the feet of the central figure showing an amazing display of jewelry-making, inside the crown Jan even showed how it was hammered from inside out, and on either side of the step where the throne sat are two levels of text.
The figure of Mary, to the left of the central figure, reads from a girdle book draped with a green cloth. The book, one of 18 painted in the panels, is a normal attribute for Mary, as she is the “seat of wisdom”.
She wears a crown adorned with flowers (between them roses and lilies) and stars, and is dressed as a bride. The inscription on the arched throne above her head reads: “She is more beautiful than the sun and the army of the stars; compared to the light she is superior. She is truly the reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of God”.
Like Mary, John the Baptist (to the right of the central figure) holds a holy book. He wears a green mantle over a cilice of camel-hair. He looks towards the Almighty in the center panel, with his right hand also raised in blessing, uttering the words most typically associated with him, ECCE AGNUS DEI (“Behold the Lamb of God”).
The two panels flanking the Deësis scene are commonly known by Singing Angels or Music-making Angels, and are both 5.28 ft x 2.26 ft (1.61 m x 0.69 m), each features a choir. On the left panel next to Mary’s image, angels gather behind a wooden carved music stand positioned on a swivel. On the right panel next to John the Baptist, a group of angels with stringed instruments gather around a pipe organ, played by a seated figure painted in full-length. The angels are dressed in liturgical robes mostly painted in reds and greens. Their robes indicate that they are intended as representative of the celebration of mass before the altar in the lower central panel. The angels attend the King of Kings in the central Deësis panel. These angels lack most of the attributes usually associated with them: they do not have wings, their faces are un-idealized, and on the contrary, show a number of different individual expressions. They are sexless and possess cherub faces. The group of angels in both panels stand on maiolica tiles decorated with the IHS Christogram, representations of the lamb and other images. The left angel panel’s frame is inscribed with the words MELOS DEO LAUS (“Music in Praise of God”), the frame of the right angel panel with LAUDATE EUM IN CORDIS ET ORGANO (“Praise him with stringed instruments and organs”).
The left-hand group of angels shows eight figures wearing each one a different crown and gathered in front of a music stand singing, although none of them looks towards the score on the stand. In this panel, van Eyck used the depiction of the open mouth to give a sense of life and motion to his figures.
The opening of their mouths and their different facial and eye expressions are portrayed in accordance to the various ranges of polyphonic singing (soprano, alto, tenor and bass).
In the right-hand group of angels, the only figure painted in full length is the organist around whom the other figures gather. Although for its composition this last panel suggests a larger group of angels, only another four angel’s faces can be seen in the closely cropped huddle.
These other angels carry stringed instruments, including a small harp and a type of viol, all the instruments are shown in remarkable detail. The organ at which Saint Cecilia (patroness of musicians) sits is detailed with such precision that in places its metal surfaces show reflections of light.
The two outer panels of the central register show near life-sized nudes of Adam and Eve standing in niches. They face inwards towards the angels and the Deësis scene. They self-consciously attempt to cover their nakedness with a fig leaf as in the account of the Book of Genesis, indicating that they are depicted after they committed the original sin.
Eve holds a fruit in her raised right hand; not the traditional apple but a small citrus, most probably a citron. Both figures’ eyes are downcast and they appear to have forlorn expressions. The realism prevalent in Jan’s painting is especially evident in these two panels. The depiction of Eve exemplifies the Late Gothic ideal for the female figure established in International Gothic art around the start of the century. Like the depiction of Angels in the upper register, in comparison to contemporary depictions of Adam and Eve, Jan’s version omits the usual motifs associated with the theme: there is no serpent, tree or any trace of the Garden of Eden normally found in contemporary paintings dealing with the same subject matter. The figures of Adam and Eve are positioned near the edge of each panel, and neither is entirely within the border of their setting. Adam’s foot appears to protrude out of the niche and frame and into real space. More subtly, Eve’s arm, shoulder and hip appear to extend beyond her architectural setting. These elements give the panel a three-dimensional aspect in a trompe-l’œil fashion.
Above Adam is a grisaille depiction of Abel making a sacrifice of the first lamb of his flock and Cain presenting part of his crops as a farmer to the Lord. Above Eve is a representation of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain with an ass’s jawbone.
The lower horizontal register shows a continuous panoramic landscape that develops across five panels. The larger rectangular central panel shows the adoration of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) arranged in a scene derived from the Gospel of John. A series of crowds of people appear walking towards the lamb to worship; at each corner of the central panel congregate a group of people, another four groups arrive in the two pairs of outer panels, one for each panel. This four outer panels represent the Warriors of Christ and Just Judges on the left-hand side, and the holy hermits and pilgrims on the right. Of these eight groups of people only one consists of females. The groupings are segregated by their relationship to the old and new testaments, with those from the older books positioned to the left of the altar.
The central large rectangular panel represents the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It measures 4.39 ft x 7.77 ft (1.34 m x 2.37 m). At its center there’s an altar on which the Lamb of God is positioned, standing in a verdant meadow, while the foreground shows a fountain. Five distinct groups of figures surround altar and fountain. The dove of the Holy Spirit floats right above the lamb. The meadow is framed by trees and bushes; with the spires of Jerusalem visible in the background. The lamb stands on an altar, and is surrounded by 14 angels arranged in a circle, some holding symbols of Christ’s Passion (the cross, the crown of thorns, the flogging column), and two swing censers.
The lamb has a wound on its breast from which blood gushes into a golden chalice, and isn’t showing any suffering or pain, a reference to Christ’s sacrifice. The lamb has a human-like face which appears to be looking directly out of the panel. The antependium on the upper portion of the front of the altar is inscribed with the words taken from John 1:29: ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”).
A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hovers low in the sky directly above the lamb, surrounded by concentric semicircles of white and yellow hues of varying luminosity, the outermost of which appear like nimbus clouds. The dove as the Holy Spirit, and the lamb as Jesus, are aligned on the same axis with the figure of God The Father in the panel directly above; a reference to the Holy Trinity.
In the center foreground it’s the Fountain of Life. The inscription on the fountain’s rim reads HIC EST FONS AQUE VITE PROCENDENS DE SEDE DEI + AGNI (“This is the fountain of the water of life, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb”), symbolizing the fountain of life is “watered by the blood of the Lamb”. From the center of the Fountain rises a column with an angel above bronze dragons, from which streams of water fall into the fountain’s basin. The fountain forms a vertical axis together with the altar and the dove of the Holy Spirit symbolizing the agreeing testimony of The Spirit, the water, and the blood, as cited in 1 John 5:6-8.
In the distance, a minutely detailed cityscape represents New Jerusalem with representations of contemporary actual churches. The landscape in which the Adoration of the Lamb scene is depicted shows a level of detail and close observation to nature never before seen in Northern European art.
The numerous recognizable species of plants are minutely depicted with high levels of botanical accuracy. Similarly, the clouds and rock formations in the distance were painted with a high degree of verisimilitude as they are observed in the real world. The depiction of the mountains beyond contain the first known example in art of aerial perspective.
The groups of figures gathering on each side of the fountain represent biblical, pagan and contemporary ecclesiastical sources. To the left of the fountain are figures from Judaism and prophets who have foretold the coming of Christ.
The figures directly next to the left of the fountain represent witnesses from the Old Testament, they are kneeling, reading aloud from open copies of the Bible, facing the mid-ground with their backs turned to the viewer. A larger group of pagan philosophers and writers stand behind these kneeling figures. These men seem have traveled from all over the world, given the Oriental faces of some, and their different styles of headdress. The figure in white, holding a laurel wreath, is thought to be Virgil, who is said to have predicted the coming of the Savior. Isaiah stands to his side holding a twig, a symbol of his own prophecy of Christ as recorded in Isaiah 11:1.
To the right of the fountain are representatives from the Church. The twelve apostles from the New Testament wearing similar robes kneel before a group of male saints. These last are dressed in red vestments symbolizing martyrs, the Popes and other clergy representing the church hierarchy. Saint Stephen was represented carrying the rocks with which he was stoned. Three popes wearing Papal tiaras in the foreground represent the Western Schism (a dispute that festered and lingered in Ghent) and are identifiable as Martin V, Gregory VII and Antipope Alexander V.
The groups of figures in the mid-ground, to the left and right of the altar, are known as the male and female martyrs. Identifiable biblical figures carry palm leaves. They enter the pictorial space through a path in the foliage, males standing to the left, women to the right.
The female martyrs, sometimes known as the holy virgins, are gathered by an abundant meadow, a symbol of fertility. A number are identified by their attributes: in front St. Agnes carries a lamb, St. Barbara a tower, Saint Catherine of Alexandria is finely dressed, and St. Dorothy carries flowers; towards the back St. Ursula carries an arrow. The women wear flowered crowns. The men on the left include confessors, popes, cardinals, abbots and monks all dressed in blue.
The shutter panels to the left of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” scene show groups of approaching knights and judges. Their biblical source can be identified from inscriptions on the panel frames. The left hand panel closest to the Lamb scene has an inscription reading “CHRISTI MILITES” (Warriors of Christ), the far left panel reads “IUSTI IUDICES” (Righteous or Just Judges).
The presence of the Judges painting has long been debated, the most likely explanation is that they refer to Jodocus Vijd’s position as a city alderman. The Just Judges panel may contain portraits of Jan and Hubert as the third and fourth Judges on horseback. This panel is a faithful copy of the original painting and was made by Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken in 1939 as the original panel was stolen in 1934 and has never been recovered.
The shutter panel to the immediate right of the “Adoration of the Lamb” scene represents the Holy Hermits, among them Mary Magdalene is seeing in the back carrying unguents, and right next is the panel with Pilgrims with a larger-than-life figure of Saint Christopher the patron saint of travelers wearing a red cape and a cane.
The Ghent altarpiece originally had a predella that included a strip of small square panels painted in water based paints, and that showed hell or limbo with Christ arriving to redeem those about to be saved. The predella was destroyed by a fire in the 16th century.
Aerial perspective: Also called atmospheric perspective. A method of creating the illusion of depth, or recession, in a painting or drawing by modulating color to simulate changes effected by the atmosphere on the colors of things seen at a distance. Although the use of aerial perspective has been known since antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci first used the term aerial perspective in his Treatise on Painting, in which he wrote: “Colours become weaker in proportion to their distance from the person who is looking at them.” Because light of short wavelength (blue light) is scattered most, the colors of all distant dark objects tend toward blue. Light of long wavelength (red light) is scattered least; thus, distant bright objects appear redder because some of the blue is scattered and lost from the light by which they are seen.
Agnus Dei: The invocation to the Lamb of God sung or recited during the fraction of the Host in the Mass of the Roman Rite and also in the Eucharist of the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church, and the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church.
IHS Christogram: A Christogram is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian Church. In the Latin-speaking Christianity of medieval Western Europe (and so among Catholics and many Protestants today), the most common Christogram became “IHS” or “IHC”, denoting the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, iota-eta-sigma, or ΙΗΣ. The Greek letter iota is represented by I, and the eta by H, while the Greek letter sigma is either in its lunate form, represented by C, or its final form, represented by S.
Maiolica: A type of tin-glazed pottery decorated in colors on a white background. Italian maiolica dating from the Renaissance period is the most renowned. When depicting historical and mythical scenes, these works were known as istoriato wares (“painted with stories”). In France maiolica developed as faience, in the Netherlands and England as delftware, and in Mexico as talavera.
Mise-en-scène: (From the French, meaning “placing on stage”). An expression used to describe the design aspect mainly of a theater or film production, which essentially means “visual theme” or “telling a story”, both in visually artful ways through storyboarding, cinematography and stage design, and in poetically artful ways through direction. It is also commonly used to refer to single scenes within the film to represent the film.
Oil paint: A type of slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil, commonly linseed oil. The viscosity of the paint may be modified by the addition of a solvent such as turpentine or white spirit, and varnish may be added to increase the glossiness of the dried oil paint film. Oil paints have been used in Europe since the 12th century for simple decoration, but were not widely adopted as an artistic medium until the early 15th century.
Trompe-l’œil: (From the French meaning “deceive the eye”). An art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Forced perspective is a comparable illusion in architecture.